Michael Toms’s interview with Mark Gerzon [“The Second Half of Life,” October 1996] was exactly what I needed. I am in my forties and have come to the realization that I need a change. But when I tell others that I now plan to do what I truly want, rather than what is expected of me, they seem scandalized by my pronouncement. Thanks to Gerzon, I no longer feel selfish in my quest for self-fulfillment.
I loved Sy Safransky’s rumination on reaching the 250th issue of The Sun [“A Prayer,” October 1996]. When he asked himself the question “What is The Sun about?” I thought of a possible answer: The Sun is about asking what The Sun (and everything else) is about.
All that can be said at the end of the day is that he’s still in love, The Sun is still there, and we’re still reading; the dialogue between writers and readers is as natural as an old couple’s last few words in bed before falling asleep.
There’s a tall, lanky, unkempt man who comes into my place of business on a regular basis. Recently, he introduced me to The Sun. Suspecting that it was a poorly written hippie magazine, I tossed the copy he handed me onto a table and continued my work. At the end of the day, I scooped it up with my other belongings and dumped it on the back seat of my car. Several weeks went by. Then, while waiting for a friend outside a grocery store, I pulled The Sun out and skimmed its pages. To my astonishment, and some shame, I was entranced. The writing was superb. I must remember to thank that tall fellow.
How about identifying what’s fiction and what’s nonfiction in The Sun? It would help me sort out the true from the made-up, which seems to be one of my major preoccupations lately.
In Contents, nonfiction pieces are followed by the name of the author, whereas short stories are identified as “A story by . . .” The distinction is subtle, but so is the difference between reality and imagination.
Robert Bates’s letter about John Detro’s death from smoking [Correspondence, September 1996] fits the current trend of bashing tobacco. Of course smoking is bad — but why are we not equally able to bash the eating of animal flesh? John Robbins’s book Diet for a New America points out that since many Asians have adopted the standard American diet, their rates of lung, heart, and other diseases have soared, while their smoking habits have remained the same. Smoking is a scapegoat issue; while focusing on it, we avoid examining more damaging practices.
Thanks to Sparrow for sharing the story of his friend’s suicide in “Clayton” and the poems that followed [September 1996]. I feel I “understand [Clayton’s] suffering,” if not “completely,” at least profoundly. I read the piece dozens of times, experiencing the pain, depression, grief, and stubborn will it triggered within me. I hope someday to express my own hard-won truths as clearly.
Having read Sparrow’s “Clayton” and “Bleeding Dharma” [May 1996], by Stephen T. Butterfield, who was a good friend of mine for many years, I’d like to comment on the subject of pain.
Broken down to its roots, the word emotion means “to move outward,” and this is what we try to do with emotional pain — move it outside ourselves, as when Clayton was “moved” to extinguish cigarettes on his arms, or when any of us lash out at our partners or children, or kill ourselves with drugs or alcohol. Our true responsibility is to face the pain within — the real enemy — and transmute it into something finer: love. Rather than cause physical pain to ourselves or others, we must focus our inner attention on the emotion and extract its precious essence, which is love. With perseverance, we can establish an equilibrium, unaffected by our shifting, turbulent feelings. This is the only way I know to achieve peace, both in ourselves and in the world.
Stephen began to realize this by watching his pain and eventually transmuting it. The result was a heightened sense of love and compassion. We can all learn much from his example.