Retired judge Devin Odell’s essay “A Face in Judgment” [September 2023] reassured me that we have judges in this country who consider the humanity of the people coming before their bench.
Unless one has the misfortune of crossing paths with the law or is tasked with the administration of it, the machinations of the U.S. justice system can be mysterious. In Washington State the judiciary are elected. Campaign signs and a brief paragraph in the voters’ pamphlet reveal next to nothing about an incumbent’s record and offer scant information about their challengers. I regularly vote, but I rarely make a selection for the judicial positions on my ballot, because I believe that an uninformed vote can do more harm than no vote at all. If, however, I were certain a candidate was of Judge Odell’s mind in sentencing, I’d definitely cast my vote for them.
Devin Odell’s essay brought me to tears. Fifteen years ago I was a social worker in Trenton, New Jersey, where I worked in a middle school and ran an after-school program at a nearby family resource center. The school was decrepit and underfunded, and I was the only social worker for the 450 students.
Kids from the middle school, generally twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, would come to the center in the afternoon, and I would set up activities for them and do some impromptu counseling. Once, I overheard a group of boys on the front porch bragging to each other. They weren’t bragging about what kind of cars they were going to drive or how fast they could run. They were bragging about how nobody was going to take advantage of them when they were in prison because they were so tough. Many of the men in their lives had gone to prison. To these boys it seemed inevitable that they would, too.
In 1979 I was a twenty-three-year-old teacher at San Quentin State Prison in California. I worked there for eight years, teaching in classrooms, in cellblocks, and even on death row. When the prison was on lockdown, which was fairly often, I was given other jobs to do. I helped the classification committee, which assigned men to school or jobs, and I combed through prison files and read violent-incident reports.
Crime and incarceration are complicated subjects, but I firmly believe that prison does not reform people — it hardens them. Some people in prison will change because they get sober or find religion or love, even, but these could all occur if they weren’t behind bars. And once they are released, they struggle to make something of their lives with no money, no housing, and no job prospects. Prisons are brutal, inhumane places without hope. Mercy is never a mistake. I applaud Devin Odell for showing it to Marco.
After reading Devin Odell’s essay, I admired and respected him. When I read on the Contributors page that he is planning to explore the Salish Sea by sailboat for a year, I envied him, too. I hope to read about his adventure in a future issue of The Sun.
Leslee Goodman’s interview with Gordon Hempton on the value of silence [“Quiet Please,” The Dog-Eared Page, August 2023] brought to mind an experience I had in the Canyonlands of Utah in October 1989: I was hiking alone in the Upheaval Dome, a ten-kilometer-wide crater or salt dome. Somewhere in the middle I noted there was no noise: no machines; no voices; no sounds from wind, water, birds, or bugs. Nothing. I tried to be as quiet as possible. Slowly I became aware of a low vibration that I can only think was the hum of the earth. I felt — still do feel — inadequate to express the power of that sensation. I doubt I’ll get to experience such a thing again as our world gets noisier, so I treasure the gift.
In his introduction to Leslee Goodman’s interview with Gordon Hempton, Finn Cohen writes, “Sometimes silence is where the loudest truths can be heard.” That line spoke to me before I even read the conversation that followed.
I first learned of Gordon Hempton’s nature recordings in grad school. My boyfriend had an eclectic record collection, and we listened to Dawn Chorus while studying for our comprehensive exams. I even recorded my own dawn chorus in New Zealand while doing my PhD research.
Now I live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Acoustic ecologists have raised concerns about how the sounds of war machines, such as the U.S. Navy’s Growler aircraft, could impact human and nonhuman life on and near the peninsula, which is regarded as one of the world’s quietest places.
My husband, our eight-year-old daughter, and I recently went on a backpacking trip in the Olympic National Park, and we took along the August 2023 issue of The Sun. Leslee Goodman’s interview with Hempton gave us plenty to talk about. My daughter was confounded by Hempton’s distinction between the natural world and the human world. She is strongly opposed to thinking about humans as separate from the natural environment. To her we are just another animal.
Leslee Goodman’s interview with Gordon Hempton on silence reminded me of a quote by the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Over the past year, while going through a divorce, I’ve struggled to read anything that wasn’t about dealing with grief, healing from abuse, or getting out of a marriage, but Leslee Goodman’s interview with Gordon Hempton kept me reading. My ex-husband was addicted to noise, technology, and distraction, and I’ve been craving and cultivating quiet so I can hear again. This interview rings like a bell in my soul.
The articles on silence in your August 2023 issue remind me how much I enjoy removing my hearing aids.
Today was a good mail day: the August 2023 issue of The Sun arrived with Courtney LeBlanc’s heart-wrenching poem “Small.” It’s always a rush seeing someone you know from the writing community in print. I’ve been following LeBlanc’s work for years, but I still wasn’t prepared for how much her words would move me.
Laura Dandaneau’s photo accompanying the July 2023 Readers Write on “Coffee” made me do a double take. I couldn’t look away from that coffeepot with the sleepy bedroom eyes. I wonder if the photo was staged or if the image revealed itself to the photographer.
In that same section, the reprinted submission by Kathleen C. — about the relationship that formed between her new husband and her daughter as they got coffee before school — brought me to tears. Young people have to handle so much isolation and despair. Hearing of a parental relationship forming like this gives me hope. It is also a reminder of the important role rituals play in our lives.
I appreciate Gregg Wagner’s kind words and question about my coffee image. The photo was not staged. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I sought a greater awareness of simple pleasures. Late one afternoon the sunlight hit the French press and stove and created a whimsical reflection. My photo was an attempt to record that moment.
This morning I realized that one of my Readers Write pieces was selected for publication [Readers Write on “Television,” October 2023]. My score of accepted versus declined submissions is similar to what it would be if I played a one-on-one basketball game against LeBron James. I keep submitting my writing, always thinking, Maybe this time.
I have enough declined material — short stories, poems, essays — to fill a book. Possibly two. I could title it The Declined.
To all the writers who submit their work and get turned down: Take another shot. You never know when you might score.