I just finished rereading Sybil Smith’s “Bible Hockey” [July 2003]. I can’t remember when I’ve been so moved by a memoir. She knows herself and has insight into the people around her (almost more than she can stand, I think). And she can write: every word counts.
I don’t know whether Smith will ever find the kind of bliss-inducing God she’s looking for, but if she continues to write, her readers will be blessed.
Though on a technical level I can appreciate Joyce Tenneson’s photograph on the cover of your July issue, your realistic, candid, given-to-the-moment cover photographs appeal to me more.
Perhaps being a photography set designer in New York City makes me a bit jaded, but I can’t help thinking that, had I seen the July cover without the Sun logo, I would have thought it was another of those ego-driven fashion magazines that I have worked for.
I just got your July issue. On the cover is a gorgeous, skinny teenager with a piece of cheesecloth on her head. Is this my first issue of The Sun, or did someone send me Cosmo by mistake?
I read with interest Philip Berrigan’s “Dispatches from the Lamb’s War” [July 2003]. I was disappointed, however, that Berrigan did not cite Muslims as having a “sacred text . . . against which to measure life” — as do the Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists that he mentions.
By identifying himself as a Catholic priest, Philip Berrigan undermines his credibility as a man of peace. The Catholic Church has been perhaps the cruelest nongovernmental organization in human history. Working hand in glove with European colonialism, it has exploited indigenous people on every continent and promoted a culture of racism (Asia, Africa, the Americas), sexism (male-only priesthood), antidemocratic hierarchy (the Pope rules) and elitism (countless scandals and coverups of pedophile priests).
Jesus was a man of peace. He identified with no religion, practiced no rituals, took no one’s money, and followed no book. He found a spiritual guide in John the Baptist, was initiated into the mysteries of mysticism, and practiced a life of prayerful meditation. Upon becoming enlightened, he taught others that the kingdom of heaven is within.
Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan’s widow responds:
To Sevgin Oktay: I regret that Phil omitted the Muslim sacred texts and ask forgiveness for the exclusion. I know it does not help to point out that Phil also omitted other religious traditions and sacred texts. I can only say that he spent most of his time with the Christian texts and no small amount of time with the Hebrew texts. If he were still with us, he would have to confess that time (and association) did not afford him the privilege of studying the Muslim texts. The best lesson I can take from this is to put myself in the way of that study and to encourage others to do the same.
To Paul McKean Moore: Phil often spoke critically of the Catholic Church and was under no illusions as to its sanctity. He was wont to say, “The Church is a whore, but she is my mother.” I always understood that, in so saying, Phil was trying to stay in touch with his own roots (and, perhaps, his own corruptibility). It was his understanding that, in order to be going somewhere, one must have come from somewhere. He was rooted in the Church, but he cut his teeth on resistance to it even before he began to resist the state. As he grew and matured, his relationship to the Church became more and more marginal.
Phil also said that “we are the Church,” and for him that meant we had to embody the kind of church we longed for. For more than thirty years Phil lived simply in the intentional community of Jonah House, serving the outcasts of society, sharing their fate, and trying to relieve their bitterness. The Church has yet to embrace the life of poverty and resistance, but if we live it in such a way that it becomes attractive, perhaps the Church will catch up.
I can almost see Phil shaking his head at Moore’s description of Christ. We can only imagine what Christ’s life was like and how he acted; the details we have are few and limited. So perhaps it is right and just that we have different interpretations of those details.
Richard Lehnert’s poem “Essay on Compassion” [July 2003] caught my eye because it was dedicated to poet Stephen Dunn. I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Dunn when he came to speak at my college. I was assigned to be his escort for the day, and I was in awe of him. In his keynote address, he read his poem “Loves,” which he’d conceived as a challenge to himself: to write until he had exhausted all examples of things that he loves. That poem, so simple in style, yet so complicated in imagery, inspired me.
Lehnert’s “Essay on Compassion” was reminiscent of Dunn’s “Loves,” and rich with its own kind of imagery. Thank you for reminding me of a day that helped rekindle my interest in poetry.
I read Arnie Cooper’s interview with Michael Ableman [“Earthly Delights,” June 2003] on my way to meet a friend from college for our annual adventure. This year we were going to New York.
On a boat tour around Manhattan, we passed by the financial district. The tour guide directed our attention to where the World Trade Center had been and asked for a moment of silence.
During that moment, I thought of Ableman’s suggestion to build a community garden on the site where the towers once stood. I agree that, if there was ever a time to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Americans care about more than the size of our skyscrapers, it is now. My biggest fear is that we will rebuild the towers, to show the world our strength and resilience. I would much rather return to New York in a couple of years and hear the guide describe the garden that now produces life and nourishment within the financial district.
I hope the people of New York will seriously consider the concept of an urban garden at Ground Zero — for their own healing, and for the sake of the entire country.
I’m a huge fan of Michael Ableman’s work, but I was stopped short when, after he discussed the population problem, he mentioned that he and his wife had a new baby.
Though I understand that no one can walk the talk 100 percent of the time, I wonder why so many progressives seem to think they are personally exempt from addressing this particular dilemma in their own lives. We need more examples of a fully lived life without offspring. Perhaps each time we do not give life to a new human, we give that life, invisibly, to the planet.
I agree completely with Michael Ableman about the benefits of community-based food production, but I’m disappointed by his regional bias. It seems that whenever I hear someone advocating a diet of fresh, locally grown food, the speaker always lives in southern California, with its year-round growing season. It’s easy to wax poetic about field-fresh strawberries grown without chemicals when you can get them pretty much all the time. Where I live, the strawberry season lasts a precious few weeks in June.
When Cooper asked Ableman, “What can people who live in a cold climate . . . do?” Ableman’s response was vague and unsatisfactory. As much as I love potatoes, I don’t think I’d be happy making them the basis for my diet all winter, no matter how many varieties there are. And I think most people would agree that canned anything, no matter how it was grown, is nowhere near as good as fresh.
My kids and I buy most of our summer and fall produce from local farms. But the community-supported farm near where I live closes from Thanksgiving until spring. If I want to eat fresh vegetables in February, I have to buy what’s been trucked in from elsewhere, probably southern California.
Michael Ableman responds:
To Kathleen Edwards: Almost everything I do has some element of compromise in it. Each time I get into an automobile, buy a new pair of boots, or even fill up the bathtub, I am contributing to the great unraveling. I was initially resistant to the idea of having another child. I had misgivings, too, before the birth of my first son twenty-one years ago. I was concerned about population and uncertain about my abilities as a parent. But raising my son was the very thing that turned me into an activist. Seeing this beautiful, pure being enter a perilous world made me want to change that world. Of course, not all activists need to have children to inspire them.
This whole blending of activism and humanity is tricky. No matter how conscientious we are in the U.S., we inevitably consume more than we are entitled to. But to abandon the joys of being human, or to analyze each one as some sort of tax on the earth, can be a subtle trap.
To Ilene Roizman: As Arnie Cooper said in the introduction to his interview, my wife and I now farm in British Columbia, Canada, not in southern California. We’ve had to give up growing avocados and citrus and eat fresh tomatoes and peppers — and, yes, strawberries — for a shorter time each year. During our first winter in British Columbia, I found myself standing sheepishly in the checkout line of the local grocery store with a head of California-grown organic lettuce concealed under my arm, as if I were buying a pornographic magazine.
Since then we have refined our skills and joined an increasing number of growers in cold climes who are using creativity and ingenuity to produce fresh foods throughout the year. (I know of one commercial farmer who grows food throughout the harsh Maine winter under cold frames and row covers without any electricity.) We have also rediscovered the art and the pleasure of drying, freezing, and canning. Cracking open a jar of homegrown pickles, or pesto, or pears, or plums during the peak of winter is an incredible experience. As an eater, I have come to prefer short bursts of seasonal pleasure. I can appreciate strawberries and corn and melons so much more when they aren’t available all the time.
We all pay dearly for our addiction to getting anything we want 365 days a year. We pay for it many times after we leave the checkout counter: with our health, with the health of the natural world, and with the loss of our sense of place.