Reading your November issue, I tried to reconcile the quote from Rilke in the Correspondence section — “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things” — and the Sunbeam from Simone Weil: “The only way into truth is through one’s own annihilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation.”
Am I to conclude that humiliation and defeat are the sperm and egg of joy?
I stand bemused by it all.
Richard Cole’s “Waiting for Emma” [November 1994] couldn’t have come at a better time in my life. I miscarried a child a few weeks ago, our first. Like Cole’s wife, I was three months pregnant.
His story captures every thought, every fear, every expectation associated with this loss. The general attitude about early, or even late, miscarriages is that one can always try again. But grief for a child expected and lost is grief just the same.
It was wonderful to read about it from the husband’s perspective, how he fumbles with the ideas about what a man should do. Society expects the husband to get over it faster or not feel anything at all. Such ignorance.
I was happy to read in Cole’s contributor’s note that he and his wife are pregnant again. I thank him for his story and wish them all the best.
The last thing I did before going to sleep last night was read Fran Peavey’s “Us and Them” [November 1994]. During the night I dreamed I was about to be attacked by two leopards. I had no desire to hurt the leopards. Without fear, I recognized that if I delivered a front side kick to each leopard’s snout (I’ve studied tae kwon do for years), both would be stunned and I could escape without seriously hurting them. I executed my plan perfectly. The animals lay limp, but not dead, and for the moment they presented no danger.
In my waking life, I try to park my ego by the door each morning. When I feel safe enough, I leave my metaphysical sword by the door, as well. Many times, it’s a struggle not to pick up the ego and sword and engage in battle with my enemies. I’m always grateful for the strength that empowers me to leave these weapons where they lie.
“Us and Them” shows the great power of not hating our adversaries. In my dream I met the challenge head-on, but the leopards and I both survived. The challenge now is to do it when I’m awake.
In Joan Gray’s story “The Dream Jar” [November 1994], the art judges said the narrator’s painting “captured the essence of rural Tennessee.” Gray has likewise captured the essence of how creativity, when surrounded by hostile influences, turns into aggression — and how we oppress each other, and ourselves.
I have thought about this story for several days. It comes dangerously close to being a feminist cliché: evil husband suppresses artistic strivings of wife enslaved to domestic routine, patriarchy, etc. But the story ends up avoiding such facile explanations or gender stereotypes: the narrator’s husband is also oppressed and does seem to care about his wife, though he’s sadly out of touch with both her inner life and his own; if there is an oppressor in the story, it would have to be Mother Pewitt.
I also commend Gray for the detailed richness of her narrator’s voice. This is a living person, not a mouthpiece for political correctness.
The dream jar lends itself to more than one level of reading. The jar is the narrator’s creative inspiration, but it is also her longing for enlightenment, which both inspires and enslaves her at the same time. The breaking of the jar is both a crushing blow and a liberation — for it bottled up and disposed of her dreams as well as preserving them, and now she has no alternative but to come into the real world. I don’t believe for one minute that she will keep her promise to start “acting like a responsible adult.”
You say in your “Holiday Offer” that you don’t want The Sun to be self-consciously spiritual. I think you have succeeded. When I think of spiritual, I think of something appealing to the positive aspects of the soul; if not something inspiring, then at least something to provoke analytical thought or healthy introspection. To me, your ideals and goals seem to have become muddled in grousing and complaining. Even a Zen master might contemplate his shit, but he’s unlikely to show it to everyone.
Many of your articles are depressing and dispirited. Your writers dwell on their injuries and psychic scars, the sorrows and disappointments of their lives. This may be some people’s way of getting over and getting on, but it seems too often they are lingering on those unresolved slights, injuries, and painful times. Something tells me that aspiring to self-determination and reason is preferable to continual brooding.
I don’t need a sugar-coated brand of realism to provide me with happiness. But your editorial content, from letters, to articles, to Sunbeam quotes, leaves something to be desired in maturity and taste and artistic appreciation for what is “spiritual.” Just because you choose to be scatological or depressing doesn’t make you provocative.
I’m sitting in the morning water line. This daily ritual is a time to think and socialize. Some days I wait for fifteen minutes for my one bucket of water. Some days I wait an hour. Some days there is no water. Now that it’s winter in this Himalayan camp for Tibetan refugees, there isn’t much water. The temperature drops to -35°C here in winter, so the irrigation canal can’t flow. That leaves all of us sorely dependent on the one tap located in each camp. I’m lucky — there are only about 350 people sharing “my” tap. In Ag Ling camp there are fourteen hundred people on a single tap. There, one person in each household spends the entire day collecting water.
Water consumption in Ag Ling averages five liters per person, per day. That’s for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing. In my camp, we’re gluttons; our average is eleven liters per day. None of the water is safe to drink. It is contaminated year-round with coliform and E. coli. In summer months, the sediment load is so high that it causes diarrhea in children. There are dump sites upstream that put motor oil, truck batteries, and spent munitions into the river.
Diarrhea and pneumonia are still the leading causes of death in the camp. The transition from hot summer to bitterly cold winter always kills. In the past week, three have died here. These were not the old and infirm, though — one man of forty-five got a chill at work and five days later he was dead. He was a friend.
He used to be a nomad, with a flock of hundreds of sheep, goats, yaks, and ponies on the high plateau of Tibet. His father was killed for being a community elder, and my friend and his sisters fled to exile in India. They traveled at night and hid during the day. Two of his sisters died within the first year of exile. The family lost their herd, so my friend became a coolie at the age of eighteen to support his family. His goal in life was to return to his homeland.
I just received your letter offering special prices for Christmas gift subscriptions (amazing, as the roads here are closed this time of year). Your subscription rates are low considering the high quality of The Sun. After I finish reading my copy, I pass it along to all my Tibetan friends who read English. They always return with many questions about life in the United States.
Your subscription rate is also a month’s salary for me — and I earn more than most here. Waiting in water lines always gives me lots of time to reflect on the differences that exist in this world.
I’ve just read my first issue of The Sun [October 1994] on the eve of Dia de Los Muertes (the Mexican Day of the Dead). Lots of stories about cancer.
Every day I quit smoking and the next day I start again. I’ve gone whole hours at a time without puffing one of those little white sticks: devils dressed in angels’ clothes.
I think about taking up jogging and yoga and how healthy I’ll be one day. And I drive past that billboard on I-25 that shows in lighted numbers how many deaths have occurred so far this year from smoking. I feel triumphant when I pass it during one of my quitting spells, deathly when I have cigarette in hand or mouth.
Around eleven every night I look at the dirty dishes in the sink and can’t wash them until I take a drag. I imagine that I’ll quit when things settle down; that things will settle down when I quit. I flip that nickel over and over in my mind while hacking up black phlegm, or puffing, or struggling to quit for an hour.
Right now I’m smoking my last cigarette. My house will smell fresh once again. And my hair, and my car. And next weekend I’ll probably climb a mountain and do yoga.
I usually take The Sun along on the twenty-hour train ride from Bangkok to Penang to renew my visa. I almost always meet someone on the train who wants to “borrow” my Sun after they see what I go through while reading it. I’ve actually had one issue pinched, the one where John Taylor Gatto rails against compulsory education [“Confederacy of Dunces,” December 1992].
Your magazine is the only subscription I have bothered to keep since moving to Thailand from Vermont. It takes three to four months for each issue to arrive (not always in order), but good is good, regardless of the postal system.