Daniel Donaghy’s essay “Fire” [November 2023] reminds me of something my father once said. I grew up in a comfortable, safe suburban setting. My father did not. He worked his way through college and medical school and trained as a psychoanalyst.
When I was a kid, my father received a research grant to study delinquency. Years later he told me why he believed he got that grant: Most researchers with his credentials were afraid of the young people they would have to study. To him, though, they were just like the kids he’d grown up with.
I’ve been reading Townie, a memoir by Andre Dubus III, and was intrigued when I saw a letter in your November 2023 Correspondence [Jill Landry] mentioning an essay by his father. So I went to your online archive to read “Sacraments” [Andre Dubus, July 1999].
Dubus’s father wrote eloquently about the little things he did for his family—he called them “sacraments.” His son, however, paints a different picture. In his memoir Dubus depicts how his father made a shambles of his family. His children suffered financially and emotionally while he did as he pleased. Dubus never bad-mouths his father, but it’s clear that the man was a narcissist. Sacraments? Hardly!
I had goose bumps as I read Mark Leviton’s interview with Dacher Keltner on awe [“No Small Wonder,” September 2023]. Our potential to be awestruck often goes unrealized, and I fear too many people who use the word awesome fail to contemplate what it really means.
My enthusiasm for moments of epiphany has caused some people to call me crazy, an epithet I proudly own. I’ve been mesmerized by music like Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 and Schubert’s String Quartet no. 14 (Death and the Maiden). My mother took me to church (which I hated), but my father took me to mountains, woods, lakes, and streams, where I found my personal sense of God. And about forty years ago I found poetry, which has helped me survive some of the greatest challenges of life.
When I reluctantly reached the end of Leviton and Keltner’s conversation, I set the issue aside so the ideas they discussed could resonate through me. This is one interview I will read again and again.
Dacher Keltner articulates what I’ve experienced but could not express. His description of birth as the “change from nonexistence to existence” puts simple language to a profound event. When I witnessed a total solar eclipse in 2017, it felt similarly powerful. Under that ring of fire, thousands of us stood in a farmer’s field filled with awe.
Each year I act as rabbi for a small congregation of unaffiliated families who wish to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This Rosh Hashanah I shared bits of Dacher Keltner’s findings on awe and encouraged everyone to take an “awe walk” for ten minutes each day, observing what it did for their state of mind. It was a perfect exercise for the ten Days of Awe.
Mark Leviton’s interview with Dacher Keltner made me think about moments of awe in my own life: watching the sunrise in the Sierra Nevada mountains with my girlfriend; talking on the phone with my adult children; dropping the needle on a record and reading the liner notes. The conversation reminded me of a quote by Brother David Steindl-Rast: “It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”
The county jail where I’ve been detained for a year has no outdoor yard, but the rec area has a small opening in the wall ten feet off the ground that lets in daylight. We always hope our weekly hour of rec time will be during the day, so we can see the sun shining through the opening.
Earlier this summer we were sent to rec at sunset. Thinking we would see neither the sun nor the sunset, we solemnly marched to the rec area. When we arrived, someone noticed through the opening a patch of pastel color melting with the darkening blue sky. One of the guys from my unit suggested we stand on his shoulders and try to see the sunset. We helped one person at a time get onto his back and then steadied them with our hands. The reaction of awe on each guy’s face was infectious, and we took turns so we could all experience the beauty beyond the wall.
When it was finally my turn, I could see part of the Cascade mountain range, cast in brilliant purple, pink, and blue hues. For ten seconds I took it all in. Then my turn was over, but my heart was overflowing with awe.
Craig Reinbold is not alone in keeping the details of his workday from his family [“What I Don’t Tell My Wife,” September 2023]. I am a social worker and have spent almost forty years investigating and trying to prevent child abuse. My partner and friends have learned not to ask me about my work or the histories of the children I serve.
I do not remember the names of all the children and parents I have worked with over the years, but sometimes their faces and their stories flood over me. Knowing what some people do to children is too harsh of a reality for most people to bear.
It wasn’t until I read Margo Steines’s essay “Run Home” in your August 2023 issue that I understood why I ran.
I discovered running after I left my violent husband. It was just something I felt compelled to do. Running helped me quit a four-pack-a-day smoking addiction and improved my whole day if I did it first thing in the morning. My feet didn’t hold up well, though, and I dealt with one injury after another until a sports orthopedist diagnosed a congenital foot defect. Still, after eight and a half years, I ran a marathon.
That race and the years of training and overcoming injuries changed something in me. Running hollowed out my soul chamber, as Steines phrases it, and gave me a place to put all my doubts and insecurities. Even though I now prefer walking, I know that whatever happens, I can handle it.
Steven Miller’s photo on the front of your August 2023 issue is otherworldly and full of mystery. It makes a beautiful cover!
Hannah Soyer’s essay “Chair/Body/Home” [July 2023] gave me a new perspective on the challenges that people who use wheelchairs face throughout their lives. I have known and worked with many wheelchair users, but I was never aware of how minuscule differences between models of chairs could affect their comfort. I’m grateful to Soyer for opening my eyes and for her wonderful writing.
I can’t count how many times I’ve callously pitched donation requests from worthy organizations in the trash. Derek Askey’s letter to subscribers, however, hooked me [“Become a Friend of The Sun,” December 2023]. His chance meeting with an elderly woman who put his troubles in perspective is a reminder of how fortunate many of us are. It’s the type of story that I’ve come to expect from The Sun, and it motivated me to donate when I might not have otherwise.
I enjoyed the prose poem “What If Pain No Longer Ordered the Narrative,” by Erin Hoover, which you shared with newsletter subscribers—a pleasant lagniappe. The introduction to the poem mentions that the author is an unpartnered, queer mom in the South. Nevertheless it spoke to me—a cisgender, partnered male.
The words “no spare people” in Erin Hoover’s poem brought tears to my eyes as I thought of all who have gone before me. It is an incredibly moving turn of phrase that will stay with me.