Violet Snow’s essay “The Fox” [December 1998] reminded me of a rescue I took part in a few months back. Here in prison, I often visit a busy red-ant mound beside a handball court. I never tire of watching these tiny, tenacious beings go about their existence. One day, I saw a group of prisoners crowded around the mound, and my heart skipped a beat. They were watching an inmate dangle a live baby mouse by a string, lowering it onto the anthill until it got bitten, then raising it again.
I had to think of a way to stop this. I couldn’t “disrespect” another prisoner by telling him what he should or should not do, so I offered him three dollars’ worth of rolling tobacco for the mouse. He agreed, thinking I was purchasing the right to torture the helpless creature myself. Instead, I released it.
I could not disagree more with David James Duncan’s comments about the futility of trying to save the world [“Who Owns the West?” December 1998]. If people with his obvious qualifications and concern about the environment choose to avoid the battle, who will carry the banner? What he says about scale is true, but why allow that to limit your horizons, unless you really don’t care where we are headed?
In her interview with David James Duncan [“Language of Devotion,” December 1998], Christine Byl asks what kind of spiritual community would work for him. Duncan praises the medieval Beguines and goes on to imagine “a big cluster of homes on a hundred or so acres, where the children can wander around and help a seventy-year-old neighbor garden, or swim in the pond with someone else’s mom and kids.”
Although I respect Duncan’s decision to find his own piece of wilderness and just get away from it all, I wish he wouldn’t suggest that those desiring community go off and isolate themselves, using up more farmland and developing more of the countryside. Those who really want to form useful communities, like the Beguines, should move into deteriorating neighborhoods in cities and towns, fix up older homes, volunteer, get involved in the schools, help the older people shovel snow, befriend struggling single parents, and so on. A real community, located in the real world, is far more affordable and more likely to succeed than a remote utopia.
David James Duncan responds:
Thanks to Richard Hyman and Barbara Seguin for their letters. I wish we could meet for tea and talk over their excellent points — so I could listen for a change. Reading the December Sun had me wondering if that Duncan guy would ever shut up! Print has this annoying inability to modify its rigid self: one reason why I need rivers. Since magazines are built of print, though, here’s a bit more.
To Richard Hyman: My remarks against “planet-saving” are themselves an attempt to save the planet. To do this, I feel we need to keep our salvation efforts grounded and specific. I love William Stafford’s lines: “We live in occupied country, misunderstood; justice will take us millions of intricate moves.” I value such intricacy because I do care. An example: Here in Montana, a ragtag nonviolent army of us have spent years fighting to keep a specific cyanide-leaching gold mine off the Blackfoot River — not to “save the planet”; just to stop the rape of one piece of it. Knock on wood, we’re having some luck so far. And while we welcome even the most universalist prayers on the Blackfoot’s behalf, our “millions of intricate moves” seem to be what’s turning the tide.
I simply agree with Barbara Seguin. Opportunities to make the “thousand small acts of atonement” surely surround us always. That’s why, in the same interview, I called for the ethical treatment of airport bathrooms. My home ain’t no getaway. The back-yard creek and nearby wilds provide a place to live, breathe, and bow down, but are also a launching pad for my travels to make spirit offerings in story form, give voice to the wild voiceless, tell fish stories, shoot the shit with the lonely, and rejuvenate my urban self in city and town. I confess my addiction to living rivers, which these days too often means “remote.” But thanks to our thousand small acts, the cities of the future will surely contain such rivers. Meet you there for tea.
I was disappointed in the November 1998 issue, which seemed devoted to drug and alcohol abuse. In Readers Write on “Last Chance,” for example, Ruth Thone begins her story, “I know I have another drunk in me,” and an unnamed writer describes becoming a junkie in junior high. The characters in Poe Ballantine’s “The Mayfly Glimmer before Last Call” are all drunk or stoned much of the time. The first sentence of Al Neipris’s “Organicity” reads: “I was a daily drinker, a frequent opium user, and a bona fide cocaine addict,” while Monica Trasandes opens her story “Howard” with “We never did cocaine on weekdays, only on weekends.”
Was the drug theme intentional? Is it hip, once again, to get stoned? For a publication that bills itself as “A Magazine of Ideas,” these are very poor ideas, indeed.
I devour your magazine every month, and see myself reflected in many of its stories, most recently “Organicity.” My husband’s cancer gives me ready access to prescription drugs: Vicodin, Morphine, Valium, Xanax — you name it. I start the day with pot and am high by 6 A.M. From then on, I take whatever substance will dull the pain and keep me functioning.
Life and death exist simultaneously here. I tell myself that miracles can happen — are happening — but this is easier to believe when I am high.
I found David Steinberg’s essay “To Be a Sexual Son” [June 1998] brave, honest, and well written, and was shocked to read only personal attacks and other negative responses to it in the Correspondence section [September and November 1998].
Steinberg accomplished two goals all of us ardently desire: to accept ourselves; and to be accepted by our family and friends as we are, not as they would have us be. I envy the rare relationship he had with his mother, because it was alive. He offered her a challenge — not to be threatened by who he is — and she accepted. I thought he related their story with respect and compassion, an especially difficult feat when discussing family or sexuality. His essay gave me hope.
In the October 1998 correspondence, Paul McCarthy commented on the Readers Write about “Monogamy” [June 1998] — in particular, on a piece by a man who was hurt to learn his spouse had slept with another person. McCarthy wrote, “People don’t seem to realize that it’s not their partners’ actions that hurt them; it’s what they think it means about themselves.”
I agree that we are each responsible for our own mental well-being. To that extent, Robert, the author of the piece, bears some responsibility for his reaction to his wife’s infidelity. But I don’t see how that absolves her of all responsibility. If the person you love would be hurt by something you might do, why do it? McCarthy’s analysis seems more like a clever rationalization than a loving response.
Through my own infidelity, I have caused and endured a great deal of pain. My secret relationships with others sapped my emotional resources, leaving me with less to give the man I claimed to love. I always thought that if he didn’t find out, it wouldn’t matter, but he sensed I was not completely with him, despite my excellent lies (which I pretended were to protect him). In the end, I have to admit, it wasn’t the suffering I caused him that made me choose fidelity so much as the pain I caused myself — the erosion of my integrity and the lack of a long-term, loving commitment.
Please cancel my subscription. There’s too much sexual innuendo in your magazine, and I’m too busy to care. I prefer stories of overcoming adversity, life after death, reincarnation, time travel, spirit entities, metaphysical realms, and psychic abilities. When your magazine includes all these subjects — and no sexual nonsense — then I will subscribe.
Reading Neil Davidson’s remarks in the October 1998 Correspondence, I immediately thought of a friend of mine who gave up drinking about six years ago. Like Davidson, he, too, went to a few AA meetings and found them wanting. He currently sees a therapist once a week, stays sober, and has returned to college. I asked him once what keeps him sober without AA. He, too, said he realized that if he drinks, he dies. I am grateful he and Davidson have translated that idea into a firm, immutable stance.
I was surprised, though, by the tone of Davidson’s response to his critics, which was so nasty and defensive it seemed as if he actually felt guilty for not attending AA. His comment “I think it’s wonderful that these intellectually insipid meetings seem to work for so many people, but it ain’t me, babe” serves only to piss off those who take AA seriously. I wonder how long he’ll stay sober on his own with this attitude. I’m not saying he should return to AA — AA is better off without him — but if I were him I would question the need to be so smug toward people who have only his continued well-being in mind.