In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Lauren Slater’s essay “Bloodlines” [March 2015] was splendid. Although DNA testing has scientifically quantified our differences, there are many qualities that make us the same. None of us chose to be born, and none of us wants to die. The time between is our opportunity to find meaning in the mystery. We share feelings that cannot be measured by any scientific test: loneliness, fear, envy, hatred, love, compassion. Many times we imagine these feelings are unique to us, but they are all aspects of being human.
The descriptions by Saint James Harris Wood [“Your Wretched Correspondent,” February 2015] of the tedious day-to-day ordeal of imprisonment, the horrific food we wouldn’t feed our dogs, and the hope-sucking nature of life behind bars are accurate.
I used to drive by San Quentin State Prison before becoming a volunteer there. If I’d thought at all about the people inside, I would probably have asked: Who cares if someone who committed a crime is bored or eats bad food? Little did I know that three years later I would advocate for many of the 4,500 men behind those walls.
Everyone should care what happens in our country’s prisons regardless of his or her political beliefs. If you are a Democrat, you should be worried about the injustice of the prison system. If you are a Libertarian, you should be worried about inmates’ right to improve themselves. And if you are a Republican, you should be worried about how your tax dollars are being misspent.
I have been reading The Sun since arriving in federal prison two years ago. The writing is a gift in this stifling environment, where the ability to lift weights, do hundreds of push-ups, and win at cards is more valued than one’s analysis of the human condition.
Saint James Harris Wood’s letters were a pleasure to read. His comments about how inmates are treated and his stories about how people survive in this setting are all true to my experience, too. Maybe his letters will help people understand the boredom, remorse, and helplessness prisoners experience every day.
Saint James Harris Wood’s “Your Wretched Correspondent” felt like a glimpse into life on another planet. I found myself pulling for him and hoping that someone in authority would see that he has paid for his crimes and no longer needs to be behind bars. But it ends with him still in a prison cell.
How many more like him are in prison, hidden from our view, doing whatever they can to survive and keep some degree of sanity?
Wood’s words will haunt me for some time, not because I have never been incarcerated, but because I have done so little to help those who are.
Dalton Conley [“The Hand We’re Dealt,” February 2015] concludes that if your parents are educated and wealthy, then you are likely to make it in life.
But let me tell you about five boys who went to the same grammar and high school and the same Catholic church, played varsity football and track together, and joined the Army or Navy during the Korean conflict. None of our parents finished high school. We all grew up poor.
We are now all in our eighties, except for one who passed away at seventy-eight. We have all been successful. Four of us have associate of arts degrees, and I have a BA in sociology. We have wealth, own property, and will leave our heirs a goodly amount.
I believe Conley’s next study should be about those who should have been failures but made it.
I’m writing first to complain about your recent dearth of poems. As an amateur poet, I always look to the poems in each issue, and I’m often rewarded with lines that are challenging but also understandable and beautiful — a combination lacking in much of the poetry printed these days.
Mainly, though, I want to thank you for the one poem you chose for February 2015: “Abortion,” by SeSe Geddes. Over the years I’ve noticed the deft way you juxtapose a photograph with an essay, a short story with an interview. “Abortion” follows an essay [“Apartment 5,” by Kelly Grey Carlisle] in which the difficult choice to end a pregnancy is treated sympathetically. Coming after that, the poem got me in my gut, almost as if I were that desperate woman parting with the tiny life inside her.
Every issue of The Sun brings nuggets of pure enjoyment. Sometimes it’s the story, sometimes it’s the writing, and sometimes it’s both. Heather Sellers’s frightening and astonishingly good essay “I’ll Never Bother You Again” [February 2015] was that rare combination.
Heather Sellers’s memoir of being stalked has the suspense of a Hitchcock film and the emotionally abstracted viewpoint of a survivor. Her powers of observation make for a dramatic read.
During her kidnapping ordeal, Sellers shows us how she convinced her would-be murderer/rapist to return her home. Yet, when considering the memory, she says, “I hadn’t discovered a bold, brave part of myself. . . . I’d discovered . . . that I could pretend to be someone I was not, and that people could be fooled by this, and that this could save my life.”
What? It seems to me that she understood her kidnapper and became the person she needed to be to save her life. If that’s not brave, I don’t know what is.
I appreciated Barbara Schmidt’s letter [Correspondence, February 2015] about David James Duncan’s essay “The Unbreakable Thread” [November 2014]. Catch-and-release fishing seems to me a cruel “sport,” despite Duncan’s insistence to the contrary. In reply to his equating a fishhook to an acupuncture needle: if your acupuncturist is placing a hook in your mouth and dangling you on the end of a rope while you thrash about, it is time you find another acupuncturist.
It was a pleasure to read Leath Tonino’s interview with David Hinton in your January 2015 issue [“The Egret Lifting from the River”]. Having read some of Hinton’s translations of ancient Chinese poets, I was interested in what he had to say about their lives. After first taking on government jobs in an effort to improve society, many of them later devoted themselves to spiritual pursuits in the Taoist tradition. “The poet-bureaucrats,” Hinton says, “couldn’t feel themselves a part of [the constant unfolding of things] in offices.”
How wonderful, I think, now that I’m in my seventy-eighth year and finished with my own small role in the so-called “normal” world. Hinton’s description of Chinese poets reminds me of a passage in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson: “Every man,” Boswell reports Johnson as saying, “at last wishes for retreat: he sees his expectations frustrated in the world, and begins to wean himself from it, and to prepare for everlasting separation.”
A close friend of mine hanged himself about a month ago. I knew he was depressed, having marital problems, and unsure of how he would pay the bills, but I never thought he was capable of suicide.
I was still in shock when I started reading “Alternatives” by Bruce Holland Rogers [July 2014]. Before I knew it, I had read the piece (about how mental illness distorts one’s perspective) three times.
A single page in The Sun nudged me closer to understanding what my friend may have been feeling than all the talking, laughing, crying, and questioning I’ve done with the people who knew him best.
After many years of faithful reading, I’m not renewing my subscription this year. But this isn’t one of those I’m-disappointed-in-you letters. I’m not renewing because I’m leaving the country to serve in the Peace Corps and won’t have the income to pay for an international subscription. I won’t be without The Sun, though. Last year I bought my dad a gift subscription, and we’ve arranged that his issues will be included in all my care packages — after he’s through with them, of course!
My son Isaac introduced me to The Sun. We share a subscription, which he insists on having delivered to my house. He visits once a month or so and hungrily asks if we have received the new issue.
I confess I am often reluctant to read the magazine. Perhaps it’s because I know that my heart will get cracked open, ready or not; that I will see some of my innermost thoughts and feelings right there in print, written by a complete stranger; that I will discover others’ pain, and their amazing courage, which I do not think I have.
I’m grateful to The Sun for delving so deeply — no flinching, no shrinking. Some of it rubs off on me every time I turn the page.