The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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For me, the highlight of the September issue was the exquisite picture on the Contents page: the old, scarred chairs with the rattan seats, the wood siding, the planked porch — but most of all the woman who sits patiently, gazing into infinity. She epitomizes beauty, from her simple housedress right down to her slippers with the wool trim, which she undoubtedly turns up to cover her ankles when the weather gets cold.
When I was a high-school teacher in Los Angeles, I participated in a UCLA project researching problems in the schools, and Richard Rodriguez [“Crossing Borders,” August 1997] came to speak. I was struck by how accessible he was, and how interested in what we were trying to do. We felt rather lowly, I think: simple schoolteachers there at the university. The fact that Rodriguez sat on the edge of his chair and asked penetrating questions showed me that, unlike other academics, he took us seriously and knew what we were talking about.
Scott London’s interview with Rodriguez, however, reminded me of why I quit my job as a high-school teacher and left LA. Rodriguez described the LA riots of 1992 as a painful birth. I’m afraid that’s a bit too romantic for me. Fifty people died in those riots. Men were running around in the streets with automatic weapons. Helicopters flew over my house for three days. And the day after the riots broke out, I had to go to work. I had to teach school in the middle of that chaos.
A few months after the riots, I asked my sixteen-year-old students what they had done over the weekend. One said he’d been at a party, and a guy standing next to him had gotten shot. A young woman said that the same thing had happened to her boyfriend the week before. Another student said it had happened to a friend of hers the previous month.
I didn’t know what to say. Before, I’d always had some advice or comfort or suggestions to offer my students. Now all I could think was We have to get out of here — fast.
The truth is I was afraid. A teacher in a nearby school had been stabbed. Another was receiving death threats. A kind of war was being waged around me every day — children shooting children. The only appropriate response, it seemed, was to run around screaming, or else go blind. I couldn’t make enough sense of it to be part of the solution. So I left.
I moved to Germany. Ironically, here, in a country where fifty years ago I could have been killed both for being Jewish and for being lesbian, I feel much safer than I did in LA. Perhaps my escape was cowardly. Perhaps I should have stayed and tried to be a positive influence. But I had found that environment — where absurdity was accepted as a matter of fact — like a madhouse in which the patients were in charge.
Rodriguez calls Los Angeles the center of the world. Perhaps he’s right. If so, the world is a sick place. You can see everything in LA, everything you ever did or didn’t want to see. It’s a city of billionaires and barrios, where the rich and poor of all races cough together under a layer of brown smog. He can have it.
I’ve never been comfortable being photographed. I know I’ll either be depressed by the sight of all my flaws or, if a photograph does happen to compliment me, upset that this attractiveness is so elusive.
I also don’t like taking photographs. I believe I can see more clearly without a camera lens obstructing my view. And I hesitate to photograph people because it always feels intrusive.
But now, thanks to John Rosenthal’s eloquent explanation of the importance of photographs [“Mulberry Street: The Story of a Photograph,” August 1997], I plan to dust off my old Olympus and get to work. My children and grandchildren deserve to have some reminders of my present in their future.
Regarding the wonderful piece by John Rosenthal: I have always been fascinated with SoHo, and Mulberry Street in particular, so his luminous, mysterious photo immediately caught my eye. The poignant essay and other photographs did a beautiful job of capturing the ever-changing Manhattan landscape, and not always as we nostalgically remember it.
As to Rosenthal’s comments about “the Trumps of the world” converting the city into “expensive, unloved space,” I couldn’t agree more, but he ignores the occasional benefits. Certainly, the loss of Pennsylvania Station can never be compensated, but developers like Trump have revitalized some neighborhoods that were in sorry decline. This shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
There are still plenty of colorful neighborhoods in New York City, even as new uses spring up for old buildings. And photographic subjects abound far in excess of anything ever imagined by Ansel Adams.
I could relate to the experience Sy Safransky describes in “Safety” [August 1997], although I was sorry to hear the outcome of his daughter’s trip to Mexico; those things happen.
My husband and I spent six weeks in Mexico this year, doing most of our traveling by bus. Along the way, we received the following advice: “Never, ever fall asleep on the bus at the same time, because you will be robbed.” Nothing unusual happened, however, and we had a great trip.
Like Safransky, my father worried the whole time we were in Mexico. I spent a fortune on telephone calls, but it didn’t help. Fathers never change. I am forty-five and married, but still his “little girl.”
The chart in your August correspondence section says there are only 671 subscribers in the entire state of Michigan. I knew we were a minority, but I didn’t realize how small a minority.
Having discovered this, I was surprised to come in to work at the post office this morning and see a copy of The Sun on top of the magazines I had to sort. At first I figured someone had thrown my copy to me, but when I looked at the address I discovered there are twice as many Sun readers as I thought in this rather unsophisticated little town. I felt like Robinson Crusoe finding a footprint. Who says the world isn’t getting better?
Thanks for publishing the enlightening breakdown of subscribers by state. Calculating the number of subscribers per capita, I find that the top five Sun states are Vermont, Alaska, Oregon, Maine, and Colorado, while the bottom five are Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina.
Considering that you publish out of a Southern state, I am surprised you haven’t tried harder to reach out to your fellow Southerners. Are you attempting to appeal solely to, in the words of the notorious Ellen Rosner [Correspondence, February 1997], “liberal white people with long hair living in the country, eating grains, wearing Birkenstocks, and home-schooling their children”?
I just finished reading Derrick Jensen’s wonderful interview with Cleve Backster [“The Plants Respond,” July 1997], and I agree with the Buddhist and Hindu scientists who asked Backster, “What took you so long?” For me, it’s not Backster’s experiments with plant communication that are amazing, but the fact that Western scientists have generally ignored the obvious.
Shamans all over the world have known for tens of thousands of years that all matter has consciousness. The ramifications of this fact are enormous: if everything has consciousness, then we cannot continue to treat plants and animals and rocks and land (and even toasters!) as disposable objects subject to our overconsumptive whims and hungers.
If it takes a brilliant scientist like Backster to prove to the West what the wise ones have always known, then I hope someone will give him a billion dollars to fund his experiments, and fast.
The interview with Cleve Backster struck an especially deep chord in me. I agree that we, as a culture, are unable to fully consider how our actions affect plants and other entities because it would require us to process too much information. It’s a matter of scale. The president of a large corporation can’t listen to all the grievances of every employee, because the president occupies a different level in the hierarchy and has priorities those below cannot appreciate. Similarly, I couldn’t occupy my niche in human society if I recognized the death I brought to millions of microbes, insects, plants, and animals each day.
Backster’s research raises some troubling moral issues and questions. For example, is the existence of our society — with all its dependence on paper products, toxic chemicals, destruction of natural habitat, and so on —“wrong” in a spiritual sense? I don’t think so. We as humans can’t grasp the forces that drive us any more than a tree or a yogurt bacterium can grasp its importance in a botanical garden or a research lab. Each of us — whether human, animal, plant, microbe, or atom — is simply a
part of God’s consciousness.
We certainly need to reduce our consumption, destruction, and waste, and protect the ecosystems, but feeling the pain of every plant would indeed be information overload.