Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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In her letter in the September 2008 issue Nancy Chadwick suggests that stories of abuse, suicide, neglect, and death do not show “that the human spirit can . . . be strong and triumphant.” But what do we triumph over if not struggles like the ones she lists? If there is a person who has not dealt with loss, I have yet to meet him or her. To be able to write about one’s pain is, in itself, a triumph. To read about someone’s strength and courage in the face of that pain is to honor the human spirit.
I understand how Nancy Chadwick feels, but I have a different perspective on the often grim subjects of the stories and poems and essays in The Sun. It gives me hope to read about those who survive and overcome the many traumatic experiences that life throws at them.
I am twenty years into a thirty-five-year federal prison sentence, and I am at peace, despite my circumstances, because I know my life could be worse. I could be confined to a bed in a medical facility, paralyzed from the neck down. I could have died in a shootout or from a drug overdose. I often say, “I am thrilled to be here,” and people look at me as if I were crazy. I explain that “here” means alive. I once acted like an animal; I did not know anything about empathy. Today I feel for others, and when I experience pain, it reminds me that I am still human.
In his September 2008 Notebook Sy Safransky writes about his cat bringing home dead and injured birds. I am disheartened by Safransky’s resignation to the supposed naturalness of it all. Domesticated cats are not native predators in the U.S.; they are imported species that present a serious threat to our bird and small-mammal populations. Scientists estimate that domesticated cats kill a billion birds and as many wild mammals a year in the U.S. Cats have no natural predators and are not part of the local food chain; rather, they are superkillers kept fit by the careful nurturing of their owners. Collar bells and declawing do not solve the predation problem. The only solution is to keep cats in the house. It is not OK to send these creatures into the wild to hunt and kill prey they don’t need.
I was taken aback by Sy Safransky’s careless comparison of the voices that people with schizophrenia hear and the voices of one’s conscience or remembered parental admonitions [Sy Safransky’s Notebook, September 2008]. My son, a victim of the brain disease for twenty-one years, started hearing voices at age sixteen. Though he takes his medications and doesn’t drink alcohol or use illegal drugs, the voices still plague him. They are confusing, menacing, terrifying, and entirely uncontrollable.
Meghan Wynne’s short story “Stuck” [August 2008] took me back more than thirty years to my days as a medical student. One night I accompanied the gynecology resident to the emergency room to see a patient. The resident filled out the patient’s record form. Under “History” he wrote, “Lost tampon.” Under “Physical findings and treatment” he wrote, “Found tampon.” Then he signed his name, and we moved on to the next case.
David Kupfer’s interview with Judy Wicks [“Table for Six Billion, Please,” August 2008] was refreshing, but there was one crucial component missing from Wicks’s plans to reform our food system and decrease global suffering and environmental destruction. She omitted animal welfare. The livestock industry is the number-one contributor to global greenhouse-gas emissions. It demands eight times as much water as plant-food production and is the number-one cause of water pollution in the U.S. These facts are often strangely ignored by the sustainability movement. I hope Wicks will consider taking her positive influence to the next level by choosing a vegetarian diet.
I was thrilled to see Jeff Fearnside’s interview with Wendell Berry in your July 2008 issue [“Digging In”]. For some time now I have been harboring a secret wish to visit Berry at his farm in Kentucky. He writes so beautifully, and with such good sense, sadness, and humor, about restoring the American agrarian tradition. I know this desire is a form of hero worship, and given the need to shrink our carbon footprints, I am staying at home in the Adirondacks and writing this letter instead.
Berry’s writing is a gift to our nation. His words convey a wisdom that the world needs as we begin to return again to a local, household economy based on an intimate connection to the land. I recently interviewed a candidate for a job at the college where I work, and I asked what she was currently reading. Without hesitation the young woman said, “I’m in love with Wendell Berry. I’m reading Jayber Crow for the fourth time.”
The college students I introduce to Berry’s work are ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work. They are prepared to repair the damage to our ecosystem and live in decidedly different ways than their parents did. Berry’s voice both reminds us of what we have lost and points the way toward restoring our communication with the land.
I thought Wendell Berry expressed himself with intelligence and insight through most of the interview in your pages, which is why I found it baffling when he claimed that people who work for corporations “abandon their identity as individuals” and have “no moral force of their own.” Reasonable critics generally don’t indict broad swaths of society. I don’t understand how Berry can brand all corporate workers as immoral. Has he spoken to every one?
As if that weren’t enough, Fearnside feeds the flames by alleging that advertising does nothing but create a need for things that aren’t needed. Berry, in turn, paints advertising as nothing more than “false promises” and “lying.” I have seen little advertising that is an outright lie. By definition, advertising is any communication that is paid for. It serves not only to sell a product but also to inform the public that the product exists, to let consumers know they have choices.
Over the past few years I’ve become immersed in the world of sustainable agriculture, and Wendell Berry’s name has come up often as a source of brilliant and indispensable insights. I haven’t read any of Berry’s writings, so I was excited to see Jeff Fearnside’s interview with him. I was sadly disappointed, however, when I read it. I don’t know whether Berry is as much of a crank as he seems to be in the interview, but the back-and-forth between him and Fearnside was negative and tiresome: Our unhealthy food preferences! Our lack of connection to the sacred! The irresponsible mainstream media! Work that doesn’t satisfy us! The thoughtlessness of contemporary society! The best Berry can do is to say, “You have to live in the world the way it is. You can’t declare yourself too good for it and move away.”
There’s so much hope to be found in the world and so much wonderful work being done in sustainable agriculture and local food systems. I’m sorry that The Sun’s readers didn’t learn more about it.
You redeemed yourselves in August, however. I was thrilled by the interview with Judy Wicks. I can’t believe that I didn’t already know about her work. Thanks for expanding my horizons.
In the August 2008 Correspondence, Paula Marston complains about what she considers Sy Safransky’s “infantile infatuation with his wife,” waking her with his “pawing and poking,” as revealed in his Notebook of April 2008. I reread that Notebook and was again impressed with his honesty about himself and with his sincere love for his wife. I am puzzled by Marston’s animosity. I would be very happy to share my life with an intelligent, creative, attractive man. I am fifty-seven, and I have had to accept the likelihood that I will never again be gently awakened by a man who loves me and desires me. I can sleep as long as I want, alone. Lucky me.
I devoured the most recent issue of The Sun on a packed flight to California. The passenger next to me was a principal of a private high school in Lagos, Nigeria, and she asked me many questions about our country and culture. I had difficulty explaining why so many blacks and Native Americans in the U.S. are poor and uneducated, but when she commented that everything in our country is so commercial, the response was much easier: I handed her my issue of The Sun. I was proud to be able to share a positive, ad-free example of our culture with her.
I recently received a rejection letter from The Sun in response to some photographs I’d submitted. After days of lying in a fetal position and scarfing down pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, I decided to launch my own magazine: The Moon. Though similar to The Sun in format, The Moon will give priority to all submissions that have been rejected by The Sun. (Well, actually, everything I write and photograph will be included first; if there’s any space left, it will be given to Sun rejections.)
The Moon will also differ from The Sun in the following ways: Instead of “Sy’s Notebook” there will be “Jack’s Notebook.” Jack is my cat, and he’s already working on an essay about litter-box etiquette, and don’t get him started on hairballs! Instead of “Sunbeams” there will be “Broad in the Beams” — quotes about middle-aged women and why it’s so hard to lose an ounce after age forty-five. The monthly interview will be Jack interviewing me. Just yesterday he wanted to know why he gets water out of the faucet, whereas I drink mine from a bottle.
I hope Sun readers will support me in this new endeavor. I know Jack does.